Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Archive for April, 2019

Media and public obsession with the Loch Ness Monster

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/04/26

Awareness of, interest in, fascination with “the Loch Ness Monster” is a truly global phenomenon, and has been since the 1930s. Is there any other topic that arouses a comparable degree of global recognition and fascination/? I can’t think of one. Nor have I been able to find a satisfactory explanation for this uniqueness.

At any rate, when a study of environmental DNA at Loch Ness was carried out in 2018, it was reported “in 2962 international media stories, reaching a potential audience of 2,895,059,280 people . . . [during] . . . one six-week period earlier this year [2018]” (Greg Bruce, “What lies beneath? The New Zealander on the trail of monsters”, 17 November 2018).

A recent illustration of this media fascination with Loch Ness Monsters caused me some amusement. My Google Alert for “Loch Ness” brought me a number of links reporting a scientific study suggesting that the iconic public image of the Loch Ness Monster featuring a long neck stemmed from the diffusion into public knowledge of the 19th-century discovery of fossils of long-necked dinosaurs. Given that the Loch Ness Monster has been a prime interest of mine for more than half a century, naturally I followed those links:

Loch Ness monster mystery solved? Study claims ancient dinosaur discovery influenced delusion

Myth Of Loch Ness Monster influenced by dinosaurs: Study

The mystery of the Loch Ness Monster may finally be solved

Study claims ancient dinosaur discovery influenced delusion
“It’s the mystery that’s drawn millions to the town of Loch Ness since the ‘30s. But a new study may have the answer to the sightings”.

Delusional Georgian Britons made up Nessie: Expert blames hysteria surrounding the hunt for dinosaur fossils for the creation of the legend

Scientists might know where the idea of the Loch Ness Monster really came from

Loch Ness monster was mass delusion triggered by discovery of dinosaurs, study suggests

How fossil finds gave Nessie a new image

Study theorizes that ancient dinosaur discovery fueled Loch Ness sightings

How the legend of “Nessie” the Monster of Loch Ness began

The mystery of the Loch Ness Monster may finally be solved

Study: Loch Ness Monster was a delusion influenced by ancient dinosaur discovery


All these stories purport to be based on the article, “Did nineteenth century marine vertebrate fossil discoveries influence Sea Serpent reports?” by Paxton and Naish (Earth Sciences History, 38 [2019] 16–27).

However, note the absence of “Loch Ness” in the title of that article. Indeed, in the article’s dozen pages, Loch Ness is mentioned only a single time, and then in a by-the-way rather than leading fashion:
“the pattern in Figure 2 broadly reflects the actual frequency of reports in the English speaking world, especially given that the second peak is at 1930–1934 and thus covers the renewed popularity in aquatic monsters generated by worldwide interest in the Loch Ness monster in 1933. “


So far, however, according to my Google Alert, the popular media have all chosen to reference Loch Ness rather than sea serpents, with the sole exception of Forbes Magazine:
Nineteenth-Century fossil discoveries influence Sea Serpent reports


I doubt, of course, that all the misleading media headlines are owing to scrupulously fact-seeking journalists who obtained and read the Paxton-Naish article and seized on its single by-the-way reference to Loch Ness. Rather, I suspect that the PR apparatus of the journal, or perhaps of the authors’ parent institutions, generated a press release using the known attracting power of Loch Ness Monsters to bring attention to what otherwise fail to gain much public notice.

No matter the mechanism:
The point here is just to document the unique place that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, holds in global attention, recognition, fascination.


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Science: Sins of Commission and of Omission

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/04/21

What statisticians call a type-I error is a scientific sin of commission, namely, believing something to be true that is actually wrong. A type-II error, dismissing as false something that happens to be true, could be described as a scientific sin of omission since it neglects to acknowledge a truth and thereby makes impossible policies and actions based on that truth.

The history of science is a long record of both types of errors that were progressively corrected, sooner or later; but, so far as we can know, of course, the latest correction may never be the last word, because of the interdependence of superficially different bits of science. If, for instance, general relativity were found to be flawed, or quantum mechanics, then huge swaths of physics, chemistry, and other sciences would undergo major or minor changes. And we cannot know whether general relativity or quantum mechanics are absolutely true, that they are not a type-I error — all we know is that they have worked usefully up to now. Type-II errors may always be hiding in the vast regions of research not being done, or unorthodox claims being ignored or dismissed.

During the era of modern science — that is, since about the 17th century — type-I errors included such highly consequential and far-reaching dogmas as believing that atoms are indivisible, that they are not composed of smaller units. A socially consequential type-I error in the first quarter of the 20th century was the belief that future generations would benefit if people with less desirable genetic characteristics were prevented from having children, whereby tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized as late as late as 1980.

A type-II error during the second half of the 19th century was the determined belief that claims of alleviating various ailments by electrical or magnetic treatments were nothing but pseudo-scientific scams; but that was corrected in the second half of the 20th century, when electromagnetic treatment became the standard procedure for curing certain congenital failures of bone growth and for treating certain other bone conditions as well.
Another 19th-century type-II error was the ignoring of Mendel’s laws of heredity, which were then re-discovered half a century later.
During the first half of the 20th century, a type-II error was the belief that continents could not have moved around on the globe, something also corrected in the latter part of the 20th century.


Science is held in high regard for its elucidation of a great deal about how the world works, and for many useful applications of that knowledge. But the benefits that society can gain from science are greatly restricted through widespread ignorance of and misunderstanding about the true history of science.

Regarding general social and political history, Santayana’s adage is quite well-known, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That is equally true for the history of science. Since the conventional wisdom and the policy makers and so many of the pundits are ignorant of the fact that science routinely commits sins of both commission and omission, social and political policies continue to be made on the basis of so-called scientific consensus that may quite often be unsound.

In Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland 2012), evidence is cited from well-qualified and respectable sources that the mainstream consensus is flawed on quite a number of topics. Some of these are of immediate concern only to scholars and researchers, for example about the earliest settlements of the Americas, or the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the mechanism of the sense of smell. Other topics, however, are of immediate public concern, for instance a possible biological basis for schizophrenia, or the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, or the possible dangers from mercury in tooth amalgams, or the efficacy of antidepressant drugs, or the hazards posed by second-hand tobacco smoke; and perhaps above all the unproven but dogmatic belief that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, and the long-held hegemonic belief that HIV causes AIDS.

The topic of cold nuclear fusion is an instance of a possible type-II error, a sin of omission, the mainstream refusal to acknowledge the strong evidence for potentially useful applications of nuclear-atomic transformations that can occur under quite ordinary conditions.

On these, and on quite a few other matters * as well, the progress of science and the well-being of people and of societies are greatly hindered by the widespread ignorance of the fact that science always has been and will continue to be fallible,   committing sins of both omission and of commission that become corrected only at some later time — if at all.

On matters that influence public policies directly, policy-makers would be greatly helped if they could draw on historically well-informed, technically insightful, and above all impartial assessments of the contemporary mainstream consensus. A possible approach to providing such assistance would be the establishing of a Science Court; see chapter 12 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).



*    Type-I errors are rife in the misapplications of statistics in medical matters, including the testing and approval of new drugs and vaccines; see the bibliography, What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine
      For a number of possible type-II errors, see for instance The Anomalist  and the publications of the Society for Scientific Exploration  and the Gesellschaft für Anomalistik

Posted in consensus, funding research, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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